After 2014’s impressive Yarada Lij EP, Mikael Seifu has well-and-truly begun his quest to uncover the “eternally Ethiopian” in his music. Yet like all searches for essences and eternal truths, the one conducted in Zelalem threatens to extend, wind, and diffuse indefinitely, as eternal as the “core” or “root” it purports to chase.
In some ways, Seifu’s approach on his latest extended player is the perfect complement to such a hunt for “eternity” (the English translation of “Zelalem”). On tracks like “The Solipsist” and “ዘላለም (Vector of Light),” the Addis Ababa producer exploits loops and electronic trickery to lend the sampled Ethiopian touchstones — jittering krars, wandering masenqos, and qenet modes — an aura of permanence and infinity, a cyclicality that promises to guard it from fluctuations, deviations, and change. At the same time, by dressing up and repackaging his heritage in the superficial trappings of modernism, he ostensibly contrasts and highlights it to a greater effect, affirming the power of its distinctive modalities to endure, despite being conveyed by decidedly non-traditional technology.
That Seifu makes such heavy use of electronics and samples in his bid to preserve the “heart” of Ethiopia should come as little surprise, given that the Ethiopian was musically educated at Ramapo College in the US by Ben Neill, who in turn was schooled by none other than La Monte Young. However, even with his Western connections, he and his label maintain that the “Ethiopiyawi” of Zelalem doesn’t simply “westernize or electronicize extant Ethiopian music.”
On initial and repeated listens, this appears manifestly true, what with the flurried strings and stirred flutes of album highlight “How to Save a Life (Vector of Eternity),” for example, pacing by in a studied homage to his nation’s restless spirit. In this six-minute powerhouse, you can almost tangibly sense him running after the soul of his homeland, striving to rediscover and immortalize it in the energetic flourishes of a washint or a malakat. Yet other, less sublime moments, such as the chilled electronica of “Soul Manifest,” do sound quite Western in their cinematic gloss, especially when the English guest-rapping of L.A. hits the speakers.
Nonetheless, it’s almost inevitable that Zelalem bears at least some imprint of the West in the psychologically themed soundbite that opens it or in the panoramic Orb-esque ambience that closes it. This isn’t just because the EP emerged out of an increasingly globalized world in which Europeans and their descendants exert a disproportionate influence, but because intermingling was already a hallmark of Ethiopian culture and music long before Coca-Cola ever laid its grubby mitts on Africa, just as it is with almost every other supposedly unique “nation” on Earth. In fact, as Seifu appears to understand, it’s only through renewing itself in different sounds and surfaces that his motherland’s art can survive in the face of global change, protecting itself “eternally” from wholesale annexation or from becoming a dead museum-piece. This may mean that talented composers like him will have to go off in search of Ethiopia’s essence with every new record or every new generation, but fortunately for us, it also means that they’ll produce some excellent, boundary-pushing music along the way.